Gunga Din The Making of a Classic Pt 1 #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 the Miracle Year the Making of a Classic. Pt 1

Gunga Din was given the greenlight and George Stevens launched out on the waters of production despite being not exactly satisfied with the script. But he was not overly concerned. He had his two scripters along to sand down the rough spots and paper over the cracks.

Stevens was used to flying by the seat of his pants. He had cut his teeth at the Hal Roach studio as a cameraman. First with the action filled adventures of Rex the Wonder Horse, and then later adding gag man to his lenser chores on Laurel and Hardy shorts. These experiences had helped him on his features thus far and would bring solid gold to his production of Gunga Din.

So the following will be part chronology and part discussion of how problems arose and how they were solved.

Casting had been a long process, stretching back to when Howard Hawks was in charge.

Before a script was in place RKO looked to finagle a deal to trade with MGM for the services of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Robert Montgomery. That was 1936, two years later after many more names (and combinations) were considered along the way they landed their dream cast of Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen – the term of their contracts – to run from 6/1/1938 to 9/3/1938.

The million dollar production did not kick off until the last week of June with work on interiors at the studio (stage 14 the punch bowl scene). Work was ongoing constructing the outdoor sets up in Lone Pine CA (in the shadow of Mt Whitney, the surrounding Sierras dubbing in for the Khyber Pass) and on the RKO ranch in Encino.

All was ready when the caravan of technicians set out on the morning of July 13, with the coterie of performers following three and a half hours later.

They had no sooner settled in to the tent city prepared for them when a fire broke out on the outdoor set of the village (called Tantrapur in the film). Despite everyone’s efforts five buildings and many props were destroyed (Lloyd’s of London was on the hook for $5000, or $91,000 in 2019 dollars).

Fortunately the village set was not the only one they had built, two more were available- the Kali-Thuggee temple and the British army canton.

Stevens met this first obstacle the very next day by setting to work on the canton set. With his writers in tow he put together a scene with the army parade ground as the backdrop. It was a great example of making lemonade from a bad situation. While the extras were put through the paces of learning their drill, Sam Jaffe (Din) and Cary Grant enacted a scene that gives the viewer crucial information about these characters. They were getting excellent value for the money spent.

And nothing makes a studio happier than when they can see the money they are spending reflected back to them on the screen.

The Set Up – What the Studios Did #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What the Studios Did

Expansion was the word. In fact one could say that the year 1938 was one of expansion throughout Hollywood. When you total up all they spent on their facilities it was a respectable figure – 112 million.

Fox held an enviable position. They had already spread their productions across their two lots. The original on Western Avenue, and their brand new plant in Westwood.

Paramount, on the other hand, pinched by the confines of its lot on Marathon Street, was looking for other properties on which to expand, either, like Fox, up in Westwood or some place farther up in the Valley. In the meantime they were forced to build outdoor sets on their ranch property forty miles away in Malibu.

Columbia had a similar problem – and solution, utilizing their nearby ranch to ease the crush at their original lot on Gower Street. In addition they took a lease on another studio, the old B P Schulberg lot on Bronson Avenue.

Universal did not have the same problem – with 365 acres it had ample room. But what it did not have was enough sound stages for their productions. Two brand new ones were under construction and a new 6 story admin building. A recent turnover at the top (their principal founder- Carl Laemmle had been deposed) saw plans for major changes around the lot. Work was underway to modernize and soundproof three of the oldest stages on their lot – (one of which was nicknamed the “Phantom” after the Lon Chaney silent, The Phantom of the Opera, filmed there).

In 1938 MGM in Culver City, completed their Thalberg Memorial building at the cost of 2 million dollars. This administration office building was so named as a tribute to their recently deceased ‘wunderkind’ head of production, Irving J. Thalberg, the man singularly responsible for setting the precedent that the studio held the reins over the talent it employed.

Even smaller companies were feeling the need to expand. Monogram had maxed out all the space at the Talisman studios. Hal Roach, who recently switched from MGM to UA to release his comedies, was thinking about pulling down the admin building and replacing it with one larger that would house three stages and business offices. Republic was hampered in their expansion efforts by their relations with their landlord. They either wanted to buy it outright if they could negotiate a good price, or hammer out a longer lease for the property.

Only two film outfits had more pressing needs. Walt Disney, though riding the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was busy reorganizing his three companies (one of which was a realty firm) down into one unit. And RKO, which by the way had released Snow White, was in the midst of a financial reorganization, having just emerged from a 77b receivership (the prior bankruptcy instrument to the present-day Chapter 11).

So the stage was set, and the studios were humming.

Before the Wind Came

before-the-wind-came

In writing my most recent Memories post (The SoCal Trip 1975), I was curious about one of the sites we visited on that particular vacation, so I did a little research.

The site was (and is) the Selznick Studio, which is wedged away in a small enclave in Culver City, California. (It still does business but now under the name of the Culver Studios). Formed in 1919 when Thomas Ince broke away from Triangle Pictures (whose other two partners of the troika were D. W. Griffith and Hal Roach), it has changed hands a number of times over the years. After the mysterious death of Mr. Ince in 1924, Cecil B. DeMille moved into the lot. He merged the concern with the Pathe company in 1926, which in turn was acquired by RKO in 1932. Selznick leased the lot from RKO in 1936.

[Check out this history, that chronicles some of the films (and TV shows) done on the lot. Of particular note were the old sets on the lot (i.e. ones for King Kong, etc.) that were torched for the burning of Atlanta sequence for GWTW.]

When doing some research for another project, I came across this brief article in Variety for October 30, 1935 p 7.

Shearer-Garbo in with Selznick-Whitney Prods.

Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo are among those who are reported tied in financially with the new Dave Selznick producing firm in which Jock Whitney is also concerned.

I realized this article heralded the genesis of Selznick’s involvement at the Culver Studio (then RKO). Shearer and Garbo disappear from any connection to Selznick, in so far as any corporate involvement is concerned. He had been pursuing Garbo prior to this for the role that finally went to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” when the rights were sold to WB. Instead Garbo chose to do “Anna Karenina” as one of Selznick’s last projects as a producer in the employ of MGM. Garbo was close to Shearer and her husband Irving Thalberg, so this conjunction of their names is not unusual. The untimely death of Thalberg the following year and the subsequent turmoil may explain their absence from the concern going forward.

This article also set me off on another “rabbit trail,” in so far GWTW was involved.

The name in the last phrase, Jock Whitney, was completely new to me, and it proved fascinating to learn more about him.

Whitney was the young well-to-do scion of an East Coast family (who inherited 20 million from his father after 1927, and 80 million from his mother after 1944). His full name – John Hay Whitney gave the first clue to his family history. To anyone who has read about Abraham Lincoln, John Hay is a familiar name. He was one of Lincoln’s secretaries during his time in office. Later he was appointed ambassador to London, and later still served as Secretary of State under both McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. And Jock Whitney is his grandson and namesake. His other grandfather, served as Naval Secretary under Cleveland.

  Whitney graduated from Yale, and was a member of the Scroll & Key secret society while there, (his father also was an alumnus, but a member of the Skull & Crossbones secret society). He started as a clerk in a banking house. But once he came into money, he invested in personal interests. He was a major “angel” for Broadway productions during the 1930s. – “Here Goes the Bride,” “Life with Father,” and “Jumbo.” From there it was short hop to film.

He had been brought into the film business by Merian C. (“King Kong”) Cooper, then a producer and head of production at RKO. By 1933, Jock founded his own production company, Pioneer Films.  And around the same time he acquired a 15% interest in Technicolor. He used the process in making a musical short “La Cucaracha,” and later the first technicolor (three strip process) feature “Becky Sharp.” Pioneer was merged with Selznick Int’l Pictures in 1936, and Whitney ended up as chairman of the board of the new company.

Together on the Culver lot they were responsible for such films as “A Star is Born,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Rebecca,” and “Gone with the Wind.” In fact, it was through Whitney’s direct investment that Selznick acquired the rights to the Margaret Mitchell novel, which laid the foundation for what would be Selznick’s “signature” film.

In the Yale yearbook for 1926, in its write up about Whitney it noted that his future plans looked to an occupation in either the field of literature or diplomacy. Actually he “checked off both boxes.” The thirties and forties mark his time of involvement with literature as literary projects were translated to the stage and to the screen (in the 1940 census he lists himself as an executive in the Motion Picture Industry). He was an Eisenhower supporter in the fifties, and was consequently appointed the US ambassador to London, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather.